The McNeil Project features two plays by Jim McNeil, a playwright with the kind of history worthy of its own play. McNeil wrote these plays in the early 70's during a 17 year stint at Parramatta Correctional Centre for armed robbery and shooting a police officer.
After watching two of his plays presented at fortyfivedownstairs - The Chocolate Frog and The Old Familiar Juice - it's clear McNeil had (he died in 1982) not only an understanding of the inner workings and daily rituals of prison life, but an ability to tell a story without the customary coating of sugar we often need in order to swallow such a bitter pill.
THE CHOCOLATE FROG
The first play, The Chocolate Frog, was a curious viewing experience.
We are presented with two inmates clearly experienced with the penal system. Luke McKenzie plays the alpha male, a hardened creature who seems resigned to a life inside with Cain Thompson's feisty character not far behind.
In comes some fresh blood, a university educated youngster (Will Ewing) who declares - naively considering his circumstances - that he got 6 months for telling the truth: that he wasn't the perpetrator of the crime, his mate was.
Quickly labelled a snitch, or as Thompson's character continually calls him - The Chocolate Frog - it was interesting to watch the exchanges between the three men as the university student tries to "educate" the two men to the morals and views of the outside world while simultaneously the two men try to make the boy see sense that in prison, there are also rules; but that they are determined - just as in society - by those in power, of which the boy is not.
The acting by all three in the first scene was a little forced for me. The two inmates over enunciated the Aussie accent at times and I found it hard to believe a uni student would have the balls to speak the way he did to such hardened criminals who are threatening violence.
The boy is released from the cell when his mother manages to get his case re-heard for appeal and so there is never a conclusion to the piece. Life goes on and for all their discussions (as interesting as they are), no one really evolves.
Of course, McNeil is right. In reality, I probably rarely evolve myself, regardless of an interesting or profound discussion I've had with someone. I have a mechanism for coping with what the world throws at me; as does everyone else. Coping, though, does not include evolving, and yet when a character fails to do that in front of me, I am grossly offended. Go figure.
I can almost feel McNeil standing beside me, palm open with that sugarless pill as I type...
THE OLD FAMILIAR JUICE
The second play, The Old Familiar Juice, was far superior to the first.
Luke McKenzie is once again alpha male, obsessed by the newly arrived Stanley (Cain Thompson) who is watched over protectively by "Dadda", played brilliantly by Richard Bligh.
Tension weaved its way through this play like a finely stitched seam; it held the piece together and although we rarely saw it rear its ugly head, we all knew it was there.
It was riveting to watch McKenzie's character become increasingly infatuated with Stanley and the protective yet passive way Dadda tries to prevent what is the inevitable from happening.
Even in prison - in that small cell with 3 people - there are social codes, hierarchies and physical needs to be met. McNeil's script is able to get this across very well and I enjoyed the journey this play took me on.
McKenzie's character is pushing Stanley to accept his 'role' the entire time and although Stanley puts up a meek defence, it is obvious the inevitable will happen at plays end.
The way that submission is obtained, and the lack of opportunity given to Stanley to express his understanding - he passes out after drinking to much of the Old Familiar Juice - seemed like a cop out for me.
I knew early on what was going to happen - rules are rules after all - but I waited because I wanted to see Stanley's reaction when he finally surrendered. I didn't want to see him raped (which you don't), but I wanted to see the acknowledgement of his fate. And I wanted to see it on his face. I wanted to feel that moment of dread for him, because I had invested in him and felt for his predicament.
Instead I felt shut out from the real meaning of the play, the fault of which I would have to place with the playwright.
If I wanted to see submission by alcohol, I would visit my local nightclub.
Review appeared at: http://theatrevirgin.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/review-mcneil-project.html
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